"The Dead Girl’s Wedding March" by Cat Rambo
"The Truth According to Margot Williams" by Leslie Claire Walker
"Such a Lovely Shade of Green" by Samantha Henderson
"The Words the Rain Wrote" by January Mortimer
"A Garden in Hell" by Richard Parks
"Furnace Room Lullaby" by Leah Bobet
"Disquiet," by Amber van Dyk
"Among Their Bright Eyes" by Alaya Johnson
"At the Core" by Erzebet YellowBoy
Nowhere in issue #5 of Fantasy Magazine does it say that death is the theme, but it’s a conclusion that’s hard to avoid.
Margaret Ronald tells a tale of guilt in "Bear Lake." John McConaghey has killed enough men to know what dead is, so when he wakes in a stream tens days after being fatally shot, he realizes he’s dead. A thug from the big city, he walks to the small town near Bear Lake where he’s put to work sandbagging the dam to keep the floodwaters from rising. An Indian legend figures into this—if someone is eaten by a spirit bear then they become the lake’s guardian. I found "Bear Lake" a little difficult to follow at first, as I struggled to grasp where the story was headed, but in the end, it all made sense.
It wasn’t until reading "The Dead Girl’s Wedding March" by Cat Rambo that I thought it about time someone wrote a zombie fairy tale. Once upon a time, there was a dead girl, Zuleika, who lived with the other zombies below the port of Tabat. One day, a rat proposes to her. (Rats are the only living things in the City of the Dead.) Her father forbids this union and sends for the Physician to heal her from falling in love. I won’t relate anymore of the plot to you as it would sound silly. While the premise was ludicrous, I enjoyed this short-short. It certainly was original, although I did find myself shaking my head at times, struck by incredulity. But speculative fiction’s task is to explore new territory, and in its own eccentric way, this story does that. It also shows that a talented writer can get away with just about anything.
"The Truth According to Margot Williams" by Leslie Claire Walker is an odd piece. Margot is seventy-five years old and suffers from Alzheimer’s. Not a lot happens, which makes this story difficult to review. It’s mostly odd conversations and descriptions to establish setting. Much is made of three crows and the Grim Men—symbols of death, of course. This tale was too slow and esoteric for my taste; I felt as though I was standing on the outside of it peering in, not privy to something important that would make this resonate. Perhaps you’ll have a better time immersing in it.
"Such a Lovely Shade of Green" by Samantha Henderson is a tale of domestic violence and insects. Tamara is taken to a safe house so her abusive husband, Sven, can’t find her. Alone and secluded, Tamara tries to deal with the bug infestation in the stone cottage, off the beaten path. Sven finds her, beats her, and tells her he’s going to her parents to get their daughter so they can all be a family again. But her parents have moved, and Sven returns to the cottage to, one assumes, abuse Tamara again. This is where the insects come in, and the speculative element is employed.
Henderson’s prose is well executed, making each scene come alive, but I was turned off by the story’s treatment. Domestic violence is a serious issue, but the author copped out and turned this into a tale of modern morbidity. Yes, some men can be monsters, but Sven is portrayed as such a one-dimensional brute, he becomes a B-movie cliché. This would’ve worked better as a mainstream story, sans insects. The supernatural element wasn’t profound or even clever, just horrific. While the insects were rendered exceptionally well, they did nothing to reveal nuances of the human spirit or the shortcomings of two individuals in strife.
Illicit drug use is examined in January Mortimer’s "The Words the Rain Wrote." Mark is a divorced parent who discovers his son, Mick, has been smoking pot. "Not all that big of a deal," the school counselor says when Mark and his ex-wife visit him. "Mick’s a good kid with a high GPA—he’ll outgrow it." But six months later, Mick is caught with enchanted herbs, and soon he is addicted to the world of Faerie. Rehab fails; Mick escapes and travels the Faerie path, mutating into a new, eldritch form.
I was annoyed by this story, initially, by the one-sided perspective of the parent. I thought the author was overstating their case by making it a horrible addiction for the sake of greater drama. I was just a kid when Woodstock occurred, but that certainly seemed like a magical time to be alive. Eventually, reality set in, and most of the hippies grew up and got corporate jobs—having their own kids to raise—but many of them took the magic with them. I think this is the point Mortimer tries to make as Mark struggles to deal with what his son has evolved into. This is a story that can be interpreted differently depending upon the reader’s stance on counterculture. A conservative viewpoint would consider it a shame that Mark couldn’t save his son from the evils of enchanted herbs and Faerie. Then there will be those who feel sorry for Mark, clinging to his boring day job and adhering to the status quo, incapable of seeing how an alternative lifestyle could have value. In the end, the words are written in the rain, but Mark just can’t read them. Thoughtful and enjoyable.
The last thing one would think of Hell is that it might be is boring, but Richard Parks creates a dull Hell in "A Garden in Hell." Alas, I don’t think this was the author’s intention. Protagonist Hiroi has his own personal demon who stabs him repeatedly, and Hell, of course, is hot. But when Hiroi, after blowing on his blistering fingers, thinks You think I’d be used to pain by now and shrugs, the ennui is too much. While it’s possible that someone could get used to anything after a time, being new to the situation, I wanted the author to make me believe it. Unfortunately, he didn’t. Much of "A Garden in Hell" is comprised of Hiroi exchanging dry philosophical views, lacking spark or cleverness, with his demon. I would’ve liked a story like this to have had a good dose of wit and irony, for Hiroi to gibe back at his tormentor, in order to show the pointlessness of an eternity of suffering.
Leah Bobet’s "Furnace Room Lullaby" is about a woman and her haunted house—her haunted furnace in the basement, to be exact. Sometime in the past, she murdered her lover (husband?) because she was afraid of losing him, which shows how rationally she was thinking at the time. She dragged him down the stairs and incinerated him in the furnace. "Furnace Room Lullaby" begins with the yearly visit from the furnace repair man, a different one each year, and the only visitor she ever has. He suggests that she install a new furnace, which she refuses to do. In true ghost story fashion, the furnace rebels, burning the furnace man’s business card, and whispering to her through the ducts. "Ghost are regrets," she tells him. "Metaphors for guilt."
This is such a great idea for a story, yet I felt something was missing. Under 3,000 words, this could’ve been longer, and I can’t help thinking that the furnace man could’ve played a more active role. There’s definitely a triangle of characters here, and more tension would have been realized if the third side had been brought more to bear. The furnace man’s potential as a double threat—not only by replacing the old furnace, but usurping the murdered lover’s place in the woman’s gnarled heart—was never realized. Still, this is a good story; I just think the author could’ve done more with it.
"Disquiet" by Amber van Dyk is a difficult read. I’m sure the author meant it to be, as she pours on the heavy-handed literary symbolism which makes this so dense. Filled with alternating first person/third person POVs, shifting timelines, and complex imagery, it smells too much of the lamp. Didn’t work.
"Among Their Bright Eyes" by Alaya Johnson uses characters from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: the monster and the bride made for him. Well written in places, confusing in others, I found it macabre and depressing. It’s not the author’s fault that this was the ninth in a series of mostly downbeat, disheartening stories, but coming on the heels of the previous offerings, I found it to be too much. [Editor’s note: This story was also reviewed for Tangent by Aliette de Bodard when it was previously slated for issue #4 of Fantasy Magazine. Read the review.]
The final tale is "At the Core" by Erzebet YellowBoy. After her grandmother dies, Isobel goes back to the house where the woman raised and abused her, and that she finally escaped from. In the attic is a trunk, the contents of which she’s always wondered about. Other relatives pick through the old woman possessions, but Isobel claims the trunk and takes it home. Inside is a collection of her grandmother’s diaries, and the last one holds the key to why her grandmother was so abusive.
This is a well-written and suspenseful tale. YellowBoy’s prose recreates the past on multi-sensory levels. I thought I’d forgotten the musty smell-evoked memories from my own grandmother’s possessions, some dating back to the end of the Victorian era. This tale recaptured those memories in a way that fiction seldom does.
My favorite stories of this issue were "The Dead Girl’s Wedding March" by Cat Rambo, "The Words the Rain Wrote" by January Mortimer, and "Furnace Room Lullaby" by Leah Bobet. This is the only issue of Fantasy Magazine I’ve read, and while I suspect I’ll try others in the future, frankly, it wasn’t to my liking. Having an entire issue devoted to death was depressing, and I wish there had been a couple or three stories using black humor to break up the dour mood. I guess "The Dead Girl’s Wedding March" qualifies, but I was hoping for more. I imagine some readers might enjoy reading an entire issue with one gloomy tale after another, but I’m not one of them. With a title like Fantasy Magazine I was expecting something more upbeat and magical.